14-Year Webcomic AMERICAN ELF Ends, Creator Moves Forward

Our two-part interview with James Kochalka concludes today [Click here for part one]. In this installment, Kochalka talks about working with the cast of the Cartoon Hangover adaptation of his Top Shelf book SuperF*ckers, and answered a few follow-ups from our initial interview about the end of his long-running autobiographical webcomic American Elf (www.americanelf.com).

Newsarama: James, getting back to SuperF*ckers – have you gotten to work directly with any of the actors on this? 


James Kochalka:
Yeah – for the first two recording sessions, I flew out to L.A. and supervised the actors, along with the director, Fran Krause, and they were just so super-talented.

Nrama: Super-Talented SuperF*ckers, huh?

Kochalka: Exactly! The other recording sessions, I just listened in over the phone, so most of the time I was on the beach, on a cell phone, listening in – here in Burlington, and also in Cape Cod, where we were on vacation. And I felt a little ridiculous to be doing all that Hollywood stuff on my cell phone on the beach, but still, it was awesome to be on the beach! (laughs)

Nrama: Can’t argue with that. Did the actors bring anything unique to their performances that added to your understanding or interpretation of these characters?

Kochalka: Oh, everybody did! And that’s something I had to learn to accept. I had in my head the inflection of every line, but you’ve got to let the actors do their own thing! And I was never disappointed by anything anybody ever did.

Nrama: Were you even inspired in some cases to craft some new material based on their interpretations? 


Oh yeah. After the first recording sessions, I had not yet written all the scripts. So the final scripts I wrote after I heard the actors talk were influenced by my experiences with the actual actors. I definitely wrote the scripts more toward how they spoke, toward their strengths. Though you won’t really see a turning point in the show, because we shot them all out of order.

Nrama: So you sometimes found yourself creating more material for the styles of, say, Maria Bamford or David Faustino?

Kochalka: Oh yeah – he is absolutely amazing! What a find that guy was! We went through a lot of auditions for Jack Crack, and he just nailed it. There was almost no one else who was even close. His audition was just so right – most other people made him too obnoxious. There’s just something human and relatable about David Faustino’s voice, even when he’s being obnoxious. I don’t know him as a person, but his voice is just so right for that character.

Nrama: I hadn’t seen him in anything for a while, not since a web series he did a few years ago called Star-Ving, but now he’s doing this and Legend of Korra.

Kochalka: Oh, Star-Ving…I watched several episodes of that. My heart almost stopped. It’s way, way, way out there…it pushes everyone’s buttons, I think. It’s a pretty intense show. SuperF*ckers is much gentler than Star-Ving. 


Getting to your other recent big news: Why did you decide to end American Elf at this time?

Kochalka: I've been documenting my daily life for over 14 years. Now I'm looking forward to simply living it.

I think I've accomplished all I set out to do with it. I showed how the rhythms of a human life play out over a decade and a half. I created a big, ambitious work of art that I think can stand toe to toe with any of the great works in the comics medium. I'd proudly put it up against Maus or Watchmen or Peanuts or anything. I may be insane to think it's that good, but I do. Maybe the world at large will never agree. But stopping the strip gives the world a chance to pause and consider what I may have accomplished.

Deciding to quit was an intensely emotional experience. I cried a lot, multiple times, over the course of several months as I made the decision. It's not easy to give up something that you know is your greatest work.

But it doesn't matter. Even if I never create anything as good as American Elf again, I'm excited to see what it is that I will create. I know it will be interesting, at least. Quitting American Elf is a bigger risk than continuing it, and when faced with an art-risk I like to take it.

I wonder a bit if I will go insane. The daily mantra of drawing the strip might have been the only thing grounding me, I don't know. But I got a lot of ideas for stuff I want to draw, that I probably wouldn't have the energy to work on if I didn't quit American Elf.

I'm pretty sure I will draw an American Elf like graphic novel that combines fantasy and science fiction with autobiography, like I used to do in my early work. I've been itching to do that for a long time.

And I'd like to write an autobiographical choose-your-path type story... where the reader can make decisions in my life for me. But I don't really know exactly what I will draw until I start working on it. Probably I'll just screw around for a little while. 


What do you feel is the biggest thing you learned from doing the strip?

Kochalka: That art is damn dangerous. It can really f*** you up. Drawing American Elf brought me great joy, but it was also brought me intense pain. I learned that there's nothing more beautiful than life and art fully intertwined in one. But sometimes the intensity of the experience is overwhelming.

Nrama: How do you feel you've evolved as a creator and as an individual since you started doing the strip?

Kochalka: As a creator... I'm super confident. I have no fear. As a man? I'm more confident and secure in myself than I have been. I've decided being a good father and husband is more important that being a great artist. That my life here on earth now is more important than my artistic legacy when I'm gone.

But damn, I'm going to try to do it all... live a great life, make amazing art, and be remembered forever. But if I can only do one? I want to live a great life. 


What's been the most interesting or meaningful reaction you've gotten to the strip over the years?

Kochalka: A couple strips have had rather disastrous effects. I've drawn things that accidentally hurt or embarrassed friends, that kind of thing. I have deleted a couple. I'd rather not talk about them, because that would defeat the purpose of deleting them!

My art is supposed to be a force of good in the world... but art is simply too dangerous to be purely "good" no matter what your intentions are.

Nrama: Obviously, the strip is grounded in your day-to-day life. However, as you now know the end date, what extraordinarily epic thing would you do in your life to give this some sort of blaze of glory?

Kochalka: I should probably find some epic way to troll my whole audience. Actually, simply quitting the strip is probably epic enough. From the letters I'm receiving, it appears that I have broken hearts all over the world. To those that are really dismayed... there are still 14 + years of beautiful American Elf strips to go back and reread again and again. 


What else do you have coming up in comics, music or other media?

Kochalka: I have a brand new James Kochalka Superstar album that just came out called Beautiful Man, and it’s out on Bandcamp, and it’s a rock album. My last album came out this summer, and is called I Am the Beast, and it’s sort of electronic and dungeon-y. But Beautiful Man is a rock album, very straightforward.

Nrama: Any comics and/or creators you’d like to push?

Kochalka: I just started reading Multiple Warheads from Image. Brandon Graham is pretty hot right now, I imagine. That book certainly is awesome, anyway.

Oh! You know who else is amazing? My friend Brian Brown, known as Box Brown, who runs Retrofit Comics. His work has just taken off like a rocket this year. So good! The last few months, he’s just gotten better and better. I’m so excited about his comics right now. 


Any other comics you have coming out?

Kochalka: There’s a Johnny Boo book coming out in March, “Johnny Boo Does Something.” (laughs) He doesn’t actually do anything.

Nrama: It’s got to be an interesting experience going from SuperF*ckers to Johnny Book and back again.

Kochalka: Eh, I’m always working on a bunch of things at once – American Elf is very quiet contemplative stuff, and then I write things like Johnny Boo and Dragon Hunter mostly to entertain my boys, who are five and nine right now. Sometimes I just want to write a song where I shout out some swears, and sometimes I write lullabies for my kids. Going back and forth is no problem at all.

Watch the latest episode of SuperF*ckers, “Burger Brothers,” here, and check out 14 great years of American Elf at www.americanelf.com.

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